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The Martin Story

Chapter 1: The C. F. Martin Story

For well over a century and a half, The Martin Guitar Company has been continuously producing acoustic instruments that are acknowledged to be the finest in the world.

The Martin Guitar Company has, through the years, managed to survive with each succeeding generation from C. F. Martin, Sr.’s Stauffer influenced creations of the 1830s to recent developments introduced by C. F. Martin IV. Continuous operation under family management is a feat bordering on the remarkable, reflecting six generations of dedication to the guitarmaker’s craft. In or out of the music industry, C. F. Martin has few rivals for sheer staying power.

Throughout its colorful history, the company has adapted successfully to continual changes in product design, distribution systems, and manufacturing methods. In spite of the many changes, C. F. Martin has never veered away from its initial commitment to quality. The concern for producing the finest instruments possible in 1833 is especially evident today at Martin’s expanded facility in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

The story behind one of America’s most famous guitars began on January 31, 1796, in Markneukirchen, Germany, with the birth of Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. Born into a long line of cabinet makers, Christian Frederick took up the family craft at the early age of 15, when he left his hometown and traveled to Vienna to apprentice with Johann Stauffer, a renowned guitar maker.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The C. F. Martin Story
Chapter 2: Fleeing Restrictive Guilds
Chapter 3: Guitars for Wine
Chapter 4: From Workshop to Factory
Chapter 5: Testing a Young Man's Character
Chapter 6: Education Instead of Sales
Chapter 7: Riding the Ukulele Boom
Chapter 8: Martin Innovations
Chapter 9: An Era of Prosperity
Chapter 10: The Sixth Generation
Chapter 11: Ecological Concerns
Chapter 12: Continuing Adherence to Principles

Chapter 2: Fleeing Restrictive Guilds

While records of the period were sketchy, it would appear that the young Martin was a gifted apprentice, as he was named foreman of Stauffer’s shop shortly after his arrival. After marrying and bearing a son, he returned to his homeland to set up his own shop. Shortly after launching his business in Markneukirchen, Martin found himself caught in an acrimonious dispute between the Cabinet Makers Guild and the Violin Makers Guild.

Martin and his family had long been members of the Cabinet Makers Guild, as had numerous other guitar makers in the area. Looking to limit competition, the Violin Makers Guild sought to prohibit the cabinet makers from producing musical instruments. Attempting to receive an injunction against the cabinet makers, the Violin Guild launched an abusive rhetorical campaign, declaring: "The violin makers belong to a class of musical instrument makers and therefore to the class of artists whose work not only shows finish, but gives evidence of a certain understanding of cultured taste. The cabinet makers, by contrast, are nothing more than mechanics whose products consist of all kinds of articles known as furniture." Slandering the work of the cabinet makers, the Violin Guild added: "Who is so stupid that he cannot see at a glance that an armchair or a stool is no guitar and such an article appearing among our instruments must look like Saul among the prophets."

In defending their right to manufacture guitars, members of the Cabinet Makers Guild asserted that "violin makers had no vested right in making guitars" and that "the discovery of the guitar" had been brought about 35 years ago and had been completed by the cabinet maker George Martin, father of Christian Frederick Martin. In supporting their claim before local magistrates, the cabinet makers submitted testimony from a noted wholesaler, who declared, "Christian Frederick Martin, who has studied with the noted violin and guitar maker Stauffer, has produced guitars which in point of quality and appearance leave nothing to be desired and which mark him as a distinguished craftsman."

While the cabinet makers successfully defended their right to manufacture guitars, the drawn battle took its toll on C. F. Martin. Concluding that the guild system severely limited opportunities in Germany, he made the decision to emigrate to the United States, and on September 9, 1833, he left his homeland for New York City.

On arriving in New York, he quickly set up shop at 196 Hudson Street on the Lower West Side. Martin’s first establishment on these shores was a far cry from the company’s current 84,000-square-foot factory staffed by nearly 500 employees. His modest storefront housed a limited guitar production set-up in the back room, as well as a retail store selling everything from cornets to sheet music.

Given the limited output of guitars and the immaturity of the music market in 1833, distribution of Martin guitars was a haphazard affair in the early years. To augment the sales of his retail store, C. F. Martin entered into distribution agreements with a variety of teachers, importers, and wholesalers, including C. Bruno & Company (operating today as a subsidiary of Kaman), Henry Schatz, and John Coupa. Consequently, a number of Martin guitars manufactured prior to 1840 are labeled "Martin & Schatz" and "Martin & Coupa."

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The C. F. Martin Story
Chapter 2: Fleeing Restrictive Guilds
Chapter 3: Guitars for Wine
Chapter 4: From Workshop to Factory
Chapter 5: Testing a Young Man's Character
Chapter 6: Education Instead of Sales
Chapter 7: Riding the Ukulele Boom
Chapter 8: Martin Innovations
Chapter 9: An Era of Prosperity
Chapter 10: The Sixth Generation
Chapter 11: Ecological Concerns
Chapter 12: Continuing Adherence to Principles

Chapter 4: From Workshop to Factory

The early Martin guitars were totally hand-crafted products, made on a one-by-one basis, and there was little standardization. However, there were a few features that commonly incorporated in most of C. F. Martin’s instruments. Until the mid-1840s, Martin guitars were characterized by a headstock that had all the tuning keys on one side. Martin acquired this design from his teacher in Vienna, Johann Stauffer. The headstock design with all the tuning keys on one side was discontinued by Martin and went unused until Leo Fender resurrected the design in 1948 with his Telecaster guitar.

Another feature of the early Martin guitars was an adjustable neck. A screw mounted in the back of the heel of the neck was extended into the neck block. At the top of the dovetail (where the neck joins the body) there was a wooden fulcrum about which the neck could pivot up and down. With the strings attached, the neck could be adjusted via a clock key inserted into the heel. While the adjustable neck allowed the player to adjust the playing actions of the guitar, the device was complicated and prone to slipping under full string tension. So gradually, Martin phased out this unique neck adjustment.

The 1850s also witnessed one of C. F. Martin’s major design innovations, the "X" bracing system for the guitar top. Still in use today on all steel-string Martin guitars, the bracing system is largely responsible for the distinctive Martin tone, characterized by brilliant treble and powerful bass response.

C. F. Martin, Sr., died on February 16, 1873, leaving to his family and the musical world a fine tradition of guitar making. Succeeding him at the helm of the young company was his son, 48-year-old Christian Frederick, Jr., who was born in Germany. Since relocating from New York City to Nazareth, the Martin Guitar Company had evolved from a one-man operation into a thriving entity employing over a dozen craftsmen. Originally located in the Martin family homestead, Martin guitar operations had expanded to the point where a factory was needed. In 1859, a plant was constructed on the corner of Main and North Streets in Nazareth. Having undergone numerous expansions, the North Street plant is still used today as a warehouse and shipping location for strings and accessories, as well as the site of Guitarmaker’s Connection, a retail supply house for instrument making and repair.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The C. F. Martin Story
Chapter 2: Fleeing Restrictive Guilds
Chapter 3: Guitars for Wine
Chapter 4: From Workshop to Factory
Chapter 5: Testing a Young Man's Character
Chapter 6: Education Instead of Sales
Chapter 7: Riding the Ukulele Boom
Chapter 8: Martin Innovations
Chapter 9: An Era of Prosperity
Chapter 10: The Sixth Generation
Chapter 11: Ecological Concerns
Chapter 12: Continuing Adherence to Principles

Chapter 3: Guitars for Wine

Accepted business practices in the early days of Martin’s retail and manufacturing operation were far removed from today’s methods and reflected a simpler society. Barter was common in the retail trade. C. F. Martin’s personal records contain numerous entries of trading musical merchandise for everything from a case of wine to children’s clothing. New York City’s teeming Lower East Side was a harsh environment that was a world apart from the pastoral Saxony where Martin and his family grew up. Correspondence between Martin and his close friend and business associate, Henry Schatz, revealed that he never felt truly at home in New York and longed to move. In 1836, Schatz moved to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, purchasing a 55-acre tract near Nazareth. When C. F. Martin’s wife paid a visit to Schatz and his family, she developed an instant affinity for the tranquil Pennsylvania countryside. Upon returning to New York, she exerted what must have been considerable influence and prompted her husband to make the big move to Nazareth. Thus, in 1838, Martin sold his retail store to another music dealer by the name of Ludecus & Wolter and purchased an eight-acre tract on the outskirts of Nazareth. He had obviously found what he wanted, for he spent the remainder of his life there.

The following years were a period of significant development for C. F. Martin & Company guitar makers. In addition to products sold by Ludecus & Wolter in New York, company records indicate that numerous shipments were made to the then centers of trade, which were primarily shipping posts and those cities served by the canal system, since the railroad had yet to evolve. Martin’s shipping records made frequent mention of sales in Boston, Albany, Philadelphia, Richmond, Petersburg, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Business in the period was obviously satisfactory, for in an advertisement in 1850 the company declared, "C. F. Martin, Guitar Maker, respectfully informs the musical public generally that the great favor bestowed upon him has induced him to enlarge his factory, in order to supply the increasing demand for his instruments."

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The C. F. Martin Story
Chapter 2: Fleeing Restrictive Guilds
Chapter 3: Guitars for Wine
Chapter 4: From Workshop to Factory
Chapter 5: Testing a Young Man's Character
Chapter 6: Education Instead of Sales
Chapter 7: Riding the Ukulele Boom
Chapter 8: Martin Innovations
Chapter 9: An Era of Prosperity
Chapter 10: The Sixth Generation
Chapter 11: Ecological Concerns
Chapter 12: Continuing Adherence to Principles

Chapter 5: Testing a Young Man's Character

During the years following C. F. Martin, Sr.’s death, the fortunes of the Martin Company rose and fell with the business cycle. Company records, while incomplete, indicate that sales flourished during the Civil War, due in small part to the fact that many guitars were destroyed during the course of the war. A currency crisis following the war caused something of a panic among the populace and dampened Martin’s sales. However, by that time, the organization had been built to a level where it could withstand fluctuations in the economy. In 1888, C. F. Martin, Jr., died unexpectedly, leaving the business in the hands of his 22-year-old son, Frank Henry. Young Frank Martin’s abilities as a businessman were put to the test early on in his career as he took over a company faced with a severe distribution problem. At the time, C. A. Zoebisch & Sons, a New York-based importing firm, was the sole distributor for Martin guitars.

The primary business of Zoebisch & Sons was the distribution of band and orchestral instruments, and Frank Martin felt that consequently they did not devote sufficient effort to promote the Martin guitar. Martin was also continually aggravated by Zoebisch’s reluctance to handle new products, particularly the mandolin.

During the 1890s, with the massive immigration of Italians into the United States, the mandolin (an instrument of Italian origin) became increasingly popular. Frank Martin decided to terminate the distribution agreement, a large move for a young man with limited experience. Severing ties with Zoebisch was made even more difficult due to a long-standing bond of friendship that had existed between the Martin and Zoebisch families.

Upon assuming distribution of its own products, Martin enjoyed a tremendous boom in the sale of mandolins. In 1898, Frank Martin’s personal records indicated that the firm produced 113 mandolins of various styles. Production in the previous year had totaled a mere three units. Given that the company’s guitar production for the previous three years had been approximately 220 units per annum, the addition of mandolins to the product line represented significant growth for the company.

In the absence of a distributor, sales of Martin guitars and mandolins were handled by various direct mail advertisements in local newspapers and through the efforts of Frank Martin. On an annual basis, he made extensive sales trips throughout upper New York state and the New England area, where he personally sold the majority of the company’s output to music dealers.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The C. F. Martin Story
Chapter 2: Fleeing Restrictive Guilds
Chapter 3: Guitars for Wine
Chapter 4: From Workshop to Factory
Chapter 5: Testing a Young Man's Character
Chapter 6: Education Instead of Sales
Chapter 7: Riding the Ukulele Boom
Chapter 8: Martin Innovations
Chapter 9: An Era of Prosperity
Chapter 10: The Sixth Generation
Chapter 11: Ecological Concerns
Chapter 12: Continuing Adherence to Principles

 
 
 
 
 
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